85. Nostalgia and some lessons from a Barbados seminar

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 23 September 2019
Publication: Business Day (South Africa)

As Africa seeks to implement its recently established Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA), it is worth assessing some of the lessons of bloc negotiations with external powers from a policy seminar recently held in Barbados on “Comparative Region-Building in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.” The meeting was hosted by the African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Group secretariat in Brussels; the University of the West Indies; the Caribbean Community (CARICOM); and the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Institute For Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

The two keynote speakers were Guyanese former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Shridath Ramphal, and former Nigerian foreign minister and current chair of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Eminent Panel, Ibrahim Gambari. As foreign minister of Guyana, Ramphal had played an instrumental role in the 1975 Lomé Convention to guide trade between 71 (now 79, including South Africa) African, Caribbean, and Pacific states and the then nine-member European Economic Community (EEC) – now the 28-strong European Union (EU). Lomé provided duty-free access to the European market for most ACP agricultural products and minerals, as well as preferential access for sugar, rum, and beef, with Brussels also pledging aid and investment to ACP countries.

Ramphal noted how Caribbean states built consensus before joining with African and Pacific negotiators. A Caribbean delegation visited key African countries and regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC) between 1972 and 1974 to forge a common negotiating position. The significant lesson for Ramphal was the unified bargaining approach of the ACP. Shortly after Lomé, the Guyanese foreign minister hosted the creation of the ACP Group through the Georgetown Agreement.

In a presentation tinged with nostalgia and melancholy at the recent Barbados seminar, Ramphal noted that the Lomé trade negotiations had been characterised by creativity and solidarity, praising the intellectual leadership demonstrated by the global South which he saw as sorely lacking in today’s interactions between the ACP and the EU. The Guyanese diplomat was particularly scathing of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) signed between both sides from 2008, noting that their reciprocity clauses contradicted the spirit and letter of Lomé.

In his opening address in Barbados, Gambari cautioned that the global multilateral trading system was at risk. He therefore called for the reform of the ACP to reduce dependence on the EU, urging the group to use more of its own resources to support the organisation. He further pushed for Africa’s sub-regional bodies to take more of a lead on trade issues with Brussels.

The African Continental Free Trade area was criticised during the seminar for having been negotiated without closely involving Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs), which have long been identified as the pillars for successful regional integration. Intra-African trade remains an anaemic 14%. ECOWAS has championed a single customs zone, a common currency, a common agricultural agency, and trade corridors. A lack of convergence between its Nigerian-dominated anglophone and French-dominated francophone members, however, continues to obstruct progress. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is prioritising issues such as road transport, cross-border trade, industrial development, and agro-processing. The organisation, however, struggles with high dependence on agricultural products and exorbitant trading costs.

In the Caribbean, CARICOM is prioritising a single market, macroeconomic stabilization, and foreign policy coordination, while seeking to improve its natural disaster management in a cyclone-hit region. The small islands of the Pacific Islands Forum also experienced devastating cyclones in 2015 and 2016, and there is an urgent need to build their resilience to resist such weather-related disasters. Furthermore, Australia, Japan, India, and the US are pushing an Indo-Pacific strategy that is seen by many in the region as an anti-China coalition.  Nine Pacific countries have nevertheless signed on to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The Barbados policy seminar ended by urging an increased role for the private sector across the ACP region. Civil society across the three regions were also urged to adopt a more activist role in the group’s activities, as it negotiates a new post-Cotonou 2020 accord with the EU involving trade, development cooperation, and political dialogue. Furthermore, inter-ACP coordination must be strengthened, while the ACP should strengthen its strategic partnerships with groupings like the BRICS.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.